Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some basic words in Japanese: "no"

A common idea is that Japanese people (and Asian people in general) cannot say "no". This is a misconception even though it is true that they tend to use it less often and in another way compared to "western" people.

If your boss asks you: "could you do this for me?" then, effectively, "no" is not an option. I actually think there is not so many countries/companies where "no" is an option.

If your boss asks you: "was it Spain you went to last year?" and you went to Italy, then you should say "no". It would be stupid to say "yes", just because you think "no" does not exist in Japanese.

1) The theoritical "no"
Let's begin with the dictionary. Most will give you the translation いいえ iie (long i and ends with  e like the first e of Emily) for "no". However, this is not commonly used in situations where you would use "no" in English.

spain ni itta koto ga arimasuka
Have you ever been to Spain?

Iie, mada itta koto ha arimasen
No, not yet.

This is polite and theoretically correct. However this is not commonly used by Japanese people. We will see what would be more natural in the next section.

So when do Japanese people use いいえ? I wanted to say never, but I thought about it and there is a situation where Japanese people frequently use it. It is to reply to a "thank you", or a "sorry".

kore, arigatou
Thank you for this (for example for a gift).

いいえ、いいえ、別に。。。 (often shortened to いえ、いえ)
iie, iie, betsu ni ...
Don't worry, that was nothing.

shinpai sasete, gomenne
I am sorry I made you worry ("about me", for example).

いいえ、いいえ、大丈夫です。 (often shortened to いえ、いえ)
iie, iie, daijoubu desu
No problem.

2) In practice
  • 違う、違います chigau, chigaimasu (to make a mistake, be mistaken) is used instead of "no"

For example:
kyonen, spain ni ikimashita ne
Last year, you went to Spain, didn't you?

chigaimasu, Italia deshita
No, we went to Italy.

anata ga taberenai no ha, cabagge datta kke?
What was it again you did not like (to eat), cabbage?

Chigau, chigau, celery
No, no, celery.

  • まだ(です) is often used on its own, without いいえ
To use back the first example:
spain ni itta koto ga arimasuka
Have you ever been to Spain?

mada desu
Not yet.

3) Informal situation
In informal situation, a double tone mumbling will be used instead of いいえ. It is difficult to write it down as it is simply mumbling. People may write it うんう (hmm hm) but that does not give you a good idea of how to say it. Let's just say if the mumble is mono tonal, short and going down, it is the informal "yes", if it includes two sounds, then it is "no".

4) Nuances and degrees of no
Generally, Japanese people manage to guess the "no" without it being said simply by the way the other person reacts. A person who would act a bit passive, for example, could be showing his/her disappointment. Imagine that you are going with your Japanese girlfriend to Europe and plane tickets to Paris are too expensive. If you ask her "is it fine not to go to Paris?" or "can't we go to Paris another time" and she does not answer with a clear "yes", then this means "no". Only western guys would need a clear "no" in this situation to understand it is "no" (this may be more a guy/girl thing than a Japanese/western thing).

Otherwise, there are some degrees of yes and no.
I have listed some possible answers to "could you do this for me" kind of question, with the closest English meaning in practical:
- もちろん/mochiron/sure: this is a positive yes
- するよ/suru yo/I will do it (or other verbs depending on what you are asking for) : again, a positive yes

- OK: yes, but depending of the intonation it can be "no problem" or "I'll do it but that's really because of you"
- 頑張ります/ganbarimasu/I will try: this is the kind of "no, but as 'no' is not an option, this is the closest-to-true option I have". You should probably explain more why you need it, or ask if there is any problems with what you are asking for (there is, but you should not ask what they are, simply ask if there are some).
- ちょっと難しいかな/chotto muzukashii kana/It may be difficult: this generally means no.

- 無理だよ/muri da yo/It is impossible: no
- だめ/dame/never: no way
- いやです/iya desu/no: not even in your dreams (what on earth were you asking for?)

That was it for 'no'. I hope you understand better how to say 'no' in Japanese, or more specifically how to identify them when Japanese people say it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Some basic words in Japanese: "yes"

One of the problem with the Japanese language is that the difficulty is not always where you expect it. For example, there is 0 spelling problems in Japanese. There is only one way to write words and they will never wonder if you need 1 or 2 'm', 1 or 2 'p'. How many times have I seen people write "there" instead of "their" or "would of" instead of "would have". This would not happen in Japanese. On the other hand, some basic words may be problematic. Today, I would like to talk about "yes".

How to say "yes" in Japanese? If you look in a dictionary, you will find the "translation" はい (hai). This is a good translation but there are some small details I would like to discuss.

In the English "Yes, I do", we use "do" no matter the verb of the question (except for some verbs like can, shall, would, ...). In Japanese, they simply repeat the verb of the question.
For example:
Do you play tennis?                         Yes, I do
テニスをしますか。                             はい、します
tenis wo shimasu ka                         hai, shimasu

If the Japanese verb is です (desu), you need to add そう in the answer

For example:
Is this your cat?               Yes, it is.
あなたの猫ですか。                           はい、そうです
anata no neko desu ka                    hai, sou desu

In Japanese, people also use はい, more often than in English, to simply acknowledge what their interlocutor says, kind of showing their are listening and want their interlocutor to continue speaking. It is difficult to describe with words but if you listen to Japanese people, you will notice it.
For example:
If you try to say you have a problem with your internet and say this:
- インターネットのもんだいがあります。
inta-netto no mondai ga arimasu 
Your interlocutor may simply reply:
- はい
Basically, you are saying you have a problem with your internet and the other person is replying "yes". It does not mean "yes, you have a problem", but more inviting you to continue (describe more the problem, tell what you expect, ...). If you wanted your interlocutor to take action directly, you should actually have said:
- インターネットのもんだいがあります
inta-netto no mondai ga arimasu ga

More on this, here.

There is also うん (un), more familiar, which in practice is just a mumble. Again, it is possible to repeat the verb of the question.

Did you see this movie?                    Yes, I did
この映画を見た?               うん、見た。
kono eiga wo mita               un, mita    

It is possible, and quite common to omit うん. In the previous example, we could say 見たよ (mita yo) or 見た、見た (mita mita).

To conclude, let's just say that はい in formal situation is a good translation of yes. Simply, in Japanese, it is more common to follow it with the verb of the question. In informal situations, yes is translated into うん but may be eluded and the answer will only be the verb of the question in the affirmative form.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bilingual books Japanese/English

(Updated May 2013)

Are you learning Japanese? Are you fed up with grammar books and Kanji flashcards? Well, then, why not try to read real Japanese? Does this sound impossible to you? Actually it isn't, thanks to Bilingual books Japanese/English. Here are some of them:

My favorite book with texts in both Japanese and English is this one:

Why is that my favorite bilingual book?

  • it has stories originally written in Japanese, ie not just made up for foreigners. The real deal.
  • because I like the stories. They are fiction stories.
  • it has the original text and the English translation "face-to-face" so that you can read the original text and immediately see the translation (no need to turn pages or whatever)
  • it has a small introduction to every text in the preface so you can choose which one will be the most interesting for you
  • it has a great presentation of the authors (it is so nice to discover Japanese authors with a proper English text)
  • it has the Japanese format (reading from top to bottom, from right to left, and the starting page is on the opposite side of the book compared to "Western" books)
  • it has a small glossary with terms used in the book in case you want to look up for one term only (and try to figure out the translation by yourself)
And this is not even the best thing in this book. What I like even more than all this is the section between the texts and the glossary which is an explanation module of why this means that. What specific nuance has this word which disappears in the English translation, etc... This is a fantastic job and on a language point of view, this is what I like best. Here is a blurred image of it:

Copyrighted material used here as Fair Use: low quality (blurred) image used for review purpose

So what are the texts included in this book?
- Kamisama by Kawakami Hiromi: a nice short story that will tell you more about some Japanese traditions when someone moves (hikkoshi soba). Nothing religious here despite the title (which means "God").
- Mukashi yuuhi no kouen de by Otsuichi: I love this story but my wife (Japanese) finds it very scary. The end is just amazing.
- Nikuya Oumu by Ishii Shinji
- Miira by Yoshimoto Banana
- Hyakumonogatari by Kitamura Kaoru
- Kakeru by Tawada Youko

Other things:
  • Beware the paging: it goes from p1 to p143 on the "back" (back for Western people) and p1 to p112 on the "Western" front of the book. I say this because sometimes there are references to a page number but the book is divided in two. If the page reference does not make sense, look at the other half of the book.
  • There is also a CD where a professional narrator reads the text. I haven't used it myself so I cannot say how good it is but it is probably a good exercise for listening comprehension.

This is my second favorite book for bilingual texts Japanese-English:

8 authors instead of 6 but a bit slimmer. Those are novels and not fiction, so you may like this book better if you don't like fiction that much. I really enjoy the first one Nigashita Sakana ha Ookikatta by Mori Youko because:

  • it was the first text written for Japanese people that I understood (thanks to the translation etc... but still)
  • the Japanese expression used in the title is very cute and is well illustrated (don't want to give spoilers here, but I can say I use it a lot and Japanese people are impressed I know it
My wife was laughing a lot when reading the novel by Sakura Momoko but I personally did not see anything funny in it (either this is Japanese sense of humor or it was too difficult for me to focus on the humor part of it).

Otherwise, here are 2 books in the same series. I cannot comment on them as I haven't read them myself but feel free to try them:

Finally, there are more and more bilingual books but I am focusing already on the first two books (and I have this secret hope that one day, I may read a book without the English translation...).

About the author: 32 yo guy married to a Japanese woman and having a 3 yo boy. I have learned Japanese by living 1 year in Japan (Fukuoka) and I have kept some basic level by speaking it with my wife (I have a tendency to use a "feminine" Japanese, though). I don't have a huge vocabulary (using the same daily words again and again) and I forget kanji faster than I learn them. So my level is not so good and these books are still enjoyable by me, so give them a try!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

atsui or atatakai ? samui or tsumetai ? confusion around warm and cold...

In Japanese, there are several words for "warm" and several words for "cold" and things can get confusing.

Here are some explanations:

1. Translations of "cold"

When speaking about the weather, about how you feel, you have to use the following word:

For example:
- It is cold today. 今日は寒いです。(kyou ha samui desu)
- Are you cold (do you feel cold) ? 寒いですか。(samui desu ka)

When speaking about objects, especially food and drinks, the correct word is:

For example:
- 冷たいサラダ (tsumetai salada): a cold salad (ie served cold)
If you were to use 寒いサラダ(samui salada), you would basically mean a salad which feels cold (needs a jacket ?).

2. Translations of "warm"

Things get even more confusing for "warm".

When speaking about the weather or about how you feel, you have to use the words:
暖かい/あたたかい/atatakai for warm (Japanese people often refer to it as "nice warm") and 暑い/あつい/atsui  for hot (think about it as "too warm", "not-pleasant warm").

I noticed that in practice, when speaking about the weather, a foreigner will only use the term warm as the equivalent of "atsui". "atatakai" will simply be seen by foreigners as being a good weather "ii tenki ".

Also, please note that orally, "あたたかい/atatakai" is often reduced to "あったかい/attakai", especially in casual contexts.

When speaking about objects, again especially about food and drinks, the correct words are:
温かい/あたたかい/atatakai for warm and 熱い/あつい/atsui for hot.
You can notice that the pronunciation is the same as earlier, but the kanjis are different.

This time, it is generally easier to make the difference between "atatakai" and "atsui". "atatakai" simply means the dish/drink is supposed to be served warm, while "atsui" will imply it is really hot.

For example:
- 温かいサラダ (atatakai salada): a salad served warm (warm pieces of chicken ? melted cheese ?)
- スープが熱くて飲めなかった (su-pu ga atsukute nomenakatta):  I can't drink this soup, it is too hot (notice: this is written in a familiar register, don't use it in polite situations).
- both 温かいお茶 (atatakai o cha) and 熱いお茶 (atsui o cha) are correct. I would personally rather use the first one.

3. When English is interfering

Recently, English has been interfering and you will hear more and more "hot" and "ice" instead of "atatakai" or "tsumetai" for drinks, in coffee shops for example. If you are not expecting it or are not used to Japanese pronunciation of English words, this may also confuse you ("hot" is pronounced "hotto", "ice" is generally pronounced correctly).

4. Conclusion
I hope this make things clearer to you, here are some final examples:
- 暑い時に、冷たいドリンクがいいね。 (atsui toki ni, tsumetai dorinku ga ii ne): when it is warm outside, it is good to get something cold to drink.

(notice again: this is casual Japanese)
- 温かい内に (atatakai uchi ni): "while it's hot", often used when telling other people to start eating and not wait for you / your meal, ... (in this context we would add the word どうぞ(douzo) at the end).

Also, Japanese people are too polite to correct you if you make a mistake, so you will have to be careful on your own. Don't stress too much about it though, it will come with time (you can come back here, if you forget which is which or which are the correct kanjis...).

Again, please feel free to ask questions, post a comment, share this post, facebook-like it, google +1 it...

PS: I just noticed another article about this topic:熱い-vs-暑い-暖かいvs-温かい-request-lesson/
(it is focusing on warm/hot but is more complete than this post)

PS2: You probably already have an electronic dictionary but if not, I recommend the Ex-word. I have one myself and got my brother one for his birthday and we are satisfied with them. Click on the picture to get it on Amazon:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The particles "ga" and "kedo", a way to imply your interlocutor

The particles が (ga) and けど (kedo) are often used with the meaning of "but" (just in case you wonder, "ga" is more polite than "kedo" and should be used in formal conversations). For example:
(kono eiga ga mitakatta kedo jikan ga nakatta)
I wanted to see this movie but I did not have time for it.

But those particles can also be used for something else, something typically Japanese, and this is where things get a bit more complicated. For example:
(ha ga itai no de, sensei ni mite moraitai no desu ga)
One of my teeth is hurting so I would like the dentist to examine it but.
Here, the particle "ga" cannot be translated into but as people would simply wonder... but what ?
The meaning is not to bring something new in the sentence that has an opposite meaning from what has been said earlier. The meaning is to indicate that what is being said directly implies the other person. Here for example, you would like the dentist to examine your teeth, so you are expecting the person you are talking to, to do something about it (give you an appointment with the dentist, make a note for the dentist, etc...). I believe the particles "ga" and "kedo" will then simply disappear in the translation. "One of my teeth is hurting so I would like the dentist to examine it". Or we would be more straight forward with what we want "One of my teeth is hurting, could I get an appointment with the dentist ?", "could the dentist have a look at it ?".

The proper way to answer a sentence finishing by "ga" or "kedo" is to acknowledge it (meaning you understand you are supposed to do something about it).
For example:
(kashikomarimashita. shoushou o machi kudasai)
Of course, could you please hold the line a little bit ?
Or less politely (between friends):
(wakarimashita. chotto matte kudasai)
Ok, let me see.

Those sentences are generally quite easy to recognize as Japanese people will accentuate the particle "ga" or "kedo" and pause a little bit.

If someone talks to you, ends up his/her sentence with "ga" or "kedo" and you have no idea what you are supposed to do, you should simply ask what you have to do:
(watashiha dou sureba yoroshii desu ka)
What am I supposed to do ?

That's it for the particles "ga" and "kedo". Hope you enjoyed it. Don't hesitate to leave a comment...